A Short History Of Nearly Everything

by Bill Bryson

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: February 23, 2024
A Short History Of Nearly Everything
A Short History Of Nearly Everything

What are the big ideas? 1. The Role of Chance and Contingency in Evolution: While the theory of evolution through natural selection is well-established, this book e

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What are the big ideas?

  1. The Role of Chance and Contingency in Evolution: While the theory of evolution through natural selection is well-established, this book emphasizes the importance of chance and contingency in shaping the planet's biosphere. The authors discuss how small random events, such as genetic mutations or environmental changes, can have significant impacts on the course of evolution. For instance, they explore how the development of feathers in some dinosaurs led to the evolution of birds, a process that was likely influenced by chance circumstances.
  2. The Impact of Human Activities on Earth's Biosphere: This book offers an insightful perspective on how human activities are disrupting natural processes and leading to mass extinctions, climate change, and other ecological crises. The authors argue that humans have entered a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, during which our impact on Earth's biosphere is becoming increasingly significant. They also highlight the importance of understanding Earth's history in order to better anticipate and mitigate future challenges.
  3. The Significance of Small Organisms and Microbes: Many popular science books focus on large, charismatic animals like elephants, tigers, or whales. However, this book draws attention to the importance of small organisms and microbes in the grand scheme of evolution. The authors discuss how these often overlooked creatures play crucial roles in ecosystems, from decomposing organic matter to producing oxygen through photosynthesis. They also emphasize the vast diversity of life on Earth and the many discoveries yet to be made.
  4. The Uniqueness of Human Evolution: While human evolution is a well-known aspect of biology, this book presents an engaging and insightful account of our species' origins. By exploring various theories and debates surrounding human evolution, the authors challenge readers to think critically about what makes us uniquely human. They discuss how our complex social structures, language development, and cognitive abilities have set us apart from other animals.
  5. The Importance of Interdisciplinary Approaches in Scientific Research: Throughout the book, the authors emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to scientific research. By combining insights from various fields such as geology, biology, chemistry, and anthropology, researchers can gain a more comprehensive understanding of complex phenomena like evolution or the origins of life. This approach allows scientists to address pressing issues in a holistic manner and encourages collaboration between experts from different disciplines.

Chapter Summaries

A Short History of Nearly Everything


  • Atoms are necessary for the existence of matter and the universe, but they don't have a consciousness or care about us.
  • The atoms that make up living things on Earth are common elements, yet life only exists on Earth.
  • Life is tenuous and most species have gone extinct.
  • To survive, organisms must adapt to their environment and change over time.
  • Human existence is a result of a unique combination of atoms and evolutionary luck.


“It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.”

“It is a curious feature of our existance that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.”

“Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth's mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result -- eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly -- in you.”

“There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.”



  • The Big Bang theory explains the origin of the universe about 13.8 billion years ago.
  • It describes an expansion of space from a singularity, a point of infinite density and temperature.
  • Inflation theory proposes that the universe underwent a rapid expansion just fractions of a second after the Big Bang.
  • The universe is believed to be 100 billion light-years in diameter or possibly infinite.
  • We are unable to travel beyond the observable universe due to the curvature of space.
  • The universe appears fine-tuned for the existence of life.
  • Some theories suggest the possibility of multiple universes, each with different physical constants.
  • The discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation provided strong evidence for the Big Bang theory.
  • Fred Hoyle coined the term "Big Bang" sarcastically but later accepted the theory.
  • The heavy elements necessary for life were created in stars and supernovae, not during the Big Bang.


“In three minutes, 98 percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe”

“Tune your television to any channel it doesn't receive and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.”

“Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced. Tune your television to any channel it doesn't receive, and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.”

“It seems impossible that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can.”

“In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.”

“The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose”



  • Pluto was discovered in 1930 and was considered the ninth planet in our solar system. However, in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) redefined what a planet is and demoted Pluto to a dwarf planet.
  • The IAU definition of a planet requires that it orbits the sun, is spherical in shape, and has cleared its orbit of other debris. Pluto does not meet the last requirement, as it has not cleared its orbit of other small icy bodies.
  • The discovery of other large objects beyond Neptune led to the reclassification of Pluto and other similar objects as dwarf planets.
  • Pluto is still an interesting object, with moons, a thin atmosphere, and a complex history. It is also the largest known dwarf planet in our solar system.
  • The debate over Pluto's status highlights the ongoing scientific exploration and redefinition of our understanding of the universe.


“We may be only one of millions of advanced civilizations. Unfortunately, space being spacious, the average distance between any two of these civilizations is reckoned to be at least two hundred light-years, which is a great deal more than merely saying it makes it sound. It means for a start that even if these beings know we are here and are somehow able to see us in their telescopes, they're watching light that left Earth two hundred years ago. So, they're not seeing you and me. They're watching the French Revolution and Thomas Jefferson and people in silk stockings and powdered wigs--people who don't know what an atom is, or a gene, and who make their electricity by rubbing a rod of amber with a piece of fur and think that's quite a trick. Any message we receive from them is likely to begin "Dear Sire," and congratulate us on the handsomness of our horses and our mastery of whale oil. Two hundred light-years is a distance so far beyond us as to be, well, just beyond us.”



  • The universe is expanding, and this expansion began approximately 13.8 billion years ago from a singularity
  • Galaxies form when massive clouds of gas collapse under their own gravity
  • Stars are born in nebulae and live for various lengths of time before either burning out or exploding
  • Supernovae are important to astronomers because they can be used as standard candles to measure the expansion rate of the universe
  • Our solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago from a swirling disc of gas and dust
  • The Earth was likely molten for much of its early history, with liquid water existing only in the oceans
  • An object the size of Mars is believed to have collided with Earth around 4.5 billion years ago, leading to the formation of the Moon
  • Life likely emerged from a bag of chemicals in the late 1300s, eventually evolving into humans and other complex organisms.


“There’s something satisfying, I think,’ Evans said, ‘about the idea of light travelling for millions of years through space and just at the right moment as it reaches Earth someone looks at the right bit of sky and sees it. It just seems right that an event of that magnitude should be witnessed.”



  • The ancient Greeks believed that the Earth was a sphere, but they did not have accurate measurements or methods to determine its size and shape.
  • In the late seventeenth century, scientists began making more precise measurements of the Earth's size, shape, and position in space using observations of solar eclipses, Venus transits, and gravitational experiments.
  • James Cook made a measurement of the Earth-Sun distance during the transit of Venus in 1769, which allowed scientists to calculate the Earth's mean distance from the Sun as about 149.59 million kilometers.
  • Mason and Dixon surveyed a boundary line between Maryland and Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth century, using astronomical observations to determine latitude and longitude. Their work contributed to the development of surveying techniques and the understanding of Earth's shape and size.
  • In 1774, Maskelyne measured the deflection of a pendulum by the mass of a mountain, which allowed scientists to calculate the mass of the Earth. John Michell suggested using a large, homogeneous object for this measurement, and Henry Cavendish carried it out in 1797, determining the Earth's weight as about 6 billion trillion metric tons.
  • Despite these advances, scientists did not yet know the age of the Earth. The study of the Earth's history and composition would lead to the development of geology, which would eventually provide answers to this question.


“Cavendish is a book in himself. Born into a life of sumptuous privilege- his grandfathers were dukes, respectively, of Devonshire and Kent- he was the most gifted English scientist of his age, but also the strangest. He suffered, in the words of one of his few biographers, from shyness to a "degree bordering on disease." Any human contact was for him a source of the deepest discomfort.

Once he opened his door to find an Austrian admirer, freshly arrived from Vienna, on the front step. Excitedly the Austrian began to babble out praise. For a few moments Cavendish received the compliments as if they were blows from a blunt object and then, unable to take any more, fled down the path and out the gate, leaving the front door wide open. It was some hours before he could be coaxed back to the property. Even his housekeeper communicated with him by letter.

Although he did sometimes venture into society- he was particularly devoted to the weekly scientific soirees of the great naturalist Sir Joseph Banks- it was always made clear to the other guests that Cavendish was on no account to be approached or even looked at. Those who sought his views were advised to wander into his vicinity as if by accident and to "talk as it were into vacancy." If their remarks were scientifically worthy they might receive a mumbled reply, but more often than not they would hear a peeved squeak (his voice appears to have been high pitched) and turn to find an actual vacancy and the sight of Cavendish fleeing for a more peaceful corner.”

“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one's face.”

“Human beings would split the atom and invent television, nylon, and instant coffee before they could figure out the age of their own planet.”



  • The Earth's age was a subject of great debate in the 19th century, with estimates ranging from thousands to millions of years old.
  • James Ussher's biblical calculation that the Earth was created on October 23, 4004 BC, was widely discarded but persisted as a myth.
  • Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, attempted to estimate the Earth's age by measuring the rate of heat loss from heated spheres, but his results were inaccurate and overestimated the age.
  • Edmond Halley proposed estimating the Earth's age based on the amount of salt in the oceans and the rate of increase each year. However, no reliable data existed to support this hypothesis.
  • Charles Darwin, in "On the Origin of Species" (1859), estimated that 306,662,400 years were needed for the processes that created the Weald area of England. However, he later withdrew this calculation due to criticism and lack of supporting evidence.
  • William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, attempted to estimate the Earth's age using the heat loss from a sphere and calculating the time taken for it to cool. His earliest estimates were around 75,000 years old but later refinements yielded lower ages such as 168,000 and finally 24 million years in 1897. These latter values contradicted the evidence of age fromgedfossilrecords,whichshowthattheEarthistoclearlymillionsyearsold.



  • The nineteenth century saw significant discoveries in paleontology, including the discovery of dinosaurs and their classification by Richard Owen.
  • Owen's work was marked by bitter rivalries and petty disputes with other scientists such as Gideon Mantell and Thomas Henry Huxley.
  • Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh engaged in an even more spectacularly venomous rivalry, which led to the discovery of many new dinosaur species but also left a messy classification system that took years to sort out.
  • The problem of determining the age of fossils and the Earth itself remained unsolved at the end of the nineteenth century, with estimates ranging from millions to billions of years.
  • Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand farmer's son, used alchemy-inspired techniques to provide evidence that the Earth was at least hundreds of millions of years old, resolving the longstanding controversy over the age of the planet.



  • The Industrial Revolution was driven in part by developments in chemistry, but chemistry as an organized science barely existed until the late 1800s.
  • Avogadro's Principle (1811) provided a basis for more accurately measuring the size and weight of atoms. It was not widely known or accepted for nearly fifty years due to the lack of communication and organization among chemists.
  • Mendeleyev's periodic table (1869) predicted missing elements and accounted for large reserves of energy bound up in small amounts of matter through radioactivity.
  • Radioactivity led to the discovery of Earth being much older than previously believed based on radiometric dating.
  • Ernest Rutherford discovered that radioactive materials decay into other elements, converting mass into energy in an efficient way.
  • The discovery of radioactivity was initially ignored or dismissed by some scientists, but it had valuable practical applications such as radiometric dating.
  • John Kelvin's calculations on the age of Earth were revised significantly thanks to radioactivity, but still fell short of today's accepted figure.
  • Henri Becquerel, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered natural spontaneous emission of rays called radiation and two new elements, polonium and radium respectively.
  • Ernest Rutherford noticed the constant rate of decay in a sample of radioactive material (half-life) making it a reliable clock and providing an age for rocks.
  • The discovery of Earth's age via radioactivity took decades to be within a billion years or so of its actual age.



  • In the late 1800s, scientists believed the universe was static and unchanging.
  • The discovery of redshift in light from distant galaxies by Vesto Slipher and Edwin Hubble led to the realization that the universe is expanding.
  • Edwin Hubble used Henrietta Swan Leavitt's work on Cepheid variables as standard candles to measure distances to other galaxies and determined they were independent "island universes."
  • Hubble's discovery of the expansion of the universe suggested it had a beginning, which was later developed into the Big Bang theory.
  • Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, which describes gravity as the curvature of spacetime, was not immediately applied to cosmology by Hubble.
  • Georges Lemaître combined the expanding universe and General Theory of Relativity to develop the "fireworks theory" of the Big Bang in 1927, but his idea did not gain widespread acceptance until decades later.
  • Hubble died in 1953 and his wife chose not to have a funeral or reveal where his body was buried.


“Energy is liberated matter, matter is energy waiting to happen.”

“You may not feel outstandingly robust, but if you are an average-sized adult you will contain within your modest frame no less than 7 X 10^18 joules of potential energy—enough to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

“When the poet Paul Valery once asked Albert Einstein if he kept a notebook to record his ideas, Einstein looked at him with mild but genuine surprise. "Oh, that's not necessary," he replied . "It's so seldom I have one.”



  • The atom was long believed to be indivisible, but in 1897 J.J. Thomson discovered the electron, a subatomic particle that could be extracted from certain types of atoms.
  • Ernest Rutherford's gold foil experiment in 1911 provided evidence for the existence of the nucleus and led to the understanding that atoms consist of a dense nucleus with positively charged protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons in various energy levels.
  • Niels Bohr proposed the concept of quantized energy levels, allowing electrons to jump between levels without losing energy, which explained the emission spectra of elements.
  • Rutherford's team discovered neutrons, which helped explain why nuclei don't explode due to electrical repulsion.
  • The atom was found to be quite unlike the image that most people had created, with electrons jumping from one orbit to another without traveling across any intervening space, and even matter popping into existence from nothing at all (provided it disappears again swiftly).
  • Wolfgang Pauli's Exclusion Principle of 1925 led to the discovery that pairs of subatomic particles, even when separated by vast distances, can instantaneously "know" what their sister particle is doing.
  • Quantum improbabilities seemed confusing even to scientists, with Bohr remarking a person who wasn't outraged on first hearing about quantum theory didn't understand what had been said, and Heisenberg replying 'Don't try.'
  • The atom turned out to be quite unlike the image that most people had created, with electrons taking on the more amorphous aspect of a cloud, and the "shell" of an atom not some hard shiny casing but simply the outermost of these fuzzy electron clouds.
  • Physicists encountered a world where our brains just weren't wired to understand it, with a person who wasn't outraged on first hearing about quantum theory not understanding what had been said.
  • The universe was found to have two bodies of laws, one for the world of the very small (quantum physics) and another for the larger universe beyond (relativity theory).
  • Albert Einstein disliked quantum physics, or at least certain aspects of it, finding it counterintuitive that electrons could jump from one orbit to another without traveling across any intervening space.
  • He couldn't bear the notion that God created a universe where some things were forever unknowable.
  • The idea of action at a distance, which was a violation of Einstein's special theory of relativity (which decreed nothing could outrace the speed of light), led to two sets of laws for explaining the behavior of the universe - one for the world of the very small and another for the larger universe beyond.
  • Albert Einstein spent the rest of his life searching for a grand unified theory but always failed.
  • In 1945 scientists had reached a point where they understood the atom at an extremely profound level - as they all too effectively demonstrated by exploding a pair of atomic bombs over Japan.
  • However, everything in particle physics was about to get a whole lot more complicated.
  • A salutary tale of avarice, deceit, bad science, several needless deaths, and the final determination of the age of the Earth is discussed next.


“Atoms, in short, are very abundant. They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around.”

“Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms - up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested - probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. So we are all reincarnations - though short-lived ones. When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere - as part of a leaf or other human being or drop of dew.”

“Protons give an atom its identity, electrons its personality.”

“When you sit in a chair, you are not actually sitting there, but levitating above it at a height of one angstrom (a hundred millionth of a centimetre), your electrons and its electrons implacably opposed to any closer intimacy.”



  • Thomas Midgley discovered tetraethyl lead in 1923, which revolutionized the automobile industry but later was found to be highly toxic.
  • Radiocarbon dating, developed by Willard Libby in 1946, allowed for the dating of organic materials up to about 50,000 years old. However, it had limitations and errors.
  • Arthur Holmes used radiometric dating to estimate the age of the Earth in 1946, but his results were met with skepticism due to the assumption that the rocks he used were not primordial but formed from older materials.
  • Clair Patterson developed a new method for dating old rocks using uranium-lead decay in 1953 and determined the age of the Earth to be around 4.5 billion years.
  • Patterson also discovered that lead was a significant pollutant, mainly from automobile exhaust, and campaigned against its use.
  • Midgley's discovery of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in 1930 led to their widespread use as refrigerants but later were found to destroy the ozone layer in the atmosphere and were banned in developed countries around 1970 but continue to be produced in developing countries and still pollute the air.



  • The universe is approximately 12-13.5 billion years old, but this is subject to ongoing debate among scientists.
  • The Hubble constant, which relates the velocity of a galaxy's recession to its distance from us, has been a source of much disagreement and refinement over the years.
  • Astronomers have long grappled with determining the exact distances to various celestial bodies, including galaxies, due to factors such as atmospheric distortions, intergalactic dust, contaminating light from foreground stars, limited telescope time, and nested assumptions based on various theories.
  • The universe is estimated to be composed of around 5% observable matter and energy, but approximately 95% remains unaccounted for in the form of dark matter and dark energy.
  • Dark matter, which makes up around 27% of the universe, is invisible and does not interact with light or other electromagnetic radiation, making it extremely difficult to detect.
  • Dark energy, which makes up around 68% of the universe, is thought to be responsible for the observed accelerating expansion of the universe. It has been proposed that empty space is not as empty as once believed and that there are particles constantly popping in and out of existence, pushing the universe outward at an accelerating rate.
  • The cosmological constant, originally introduced by Einstein as a mathematical term to keep the universe static, is now being reconsidered as a potential explanation for dark energy.


“Physics is really nothing more than a search for ultimate simplicity, but so far all we have is a kind of elegant messiness.”

“For the moment we might very well can them DUNNOS (for Dark Unknown Nonreflective Nondetectable Objects Somewhere).”

“The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.”



  • The theory of continental drift, later renamed plate tectonics, emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a way to explain the movements of Earth's crust and the geological features of the planet.
  • Alfred Wegener first proposed the idea of continental drift in 1912, but his theories were largely dismissed by the scientific community due to lack of evidence.
  • Harry Hess played a crucial role in the acceptance of plate tectonics with his hypothesis of seafloor spreading.
  • The theory of plate tectonics revolutionized the field of geology and helped explain many geological phenomena, such as earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain formation, and the distribution of continents throughout Earth's history.
  • The theory is based on the idea that the Earth's crust is divided into large plates that move and interact with each other at their boundaries, resulting in various geological processes.
  • Some surface features and phenomena cannot be fully explained by plate tectonics, such as the rise of Denver or the tilting and sinking of Australia.
  • The acceptance of plate tectonics was a major turning point in Earth sciences, helping to unify various disparate fields and providing a more comprehensive understanding of the planet's geological processes.


“Look at a globe and what you are seeing really is a snapshot of the continents as they have been for just one-tenth of 1 per cent of the earths history.”



  • The Manson Impact, which occurred about 66 million years ago, is believed to have contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
  • The Alvarez hypothesis suggests that an asteroid or comet impact caused the extinction by releasing large amounts of sulfur and iron dust into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and disrupting ecosystems.
  • The search for evidence of ancient impacts led geologists Alan H. Anderson and Steven A. Witzke to study Meteor Crater in Arizona.
  • Despite initial excitement about the possibility that Manson was the site of the dinosaur-killing impact, further research revealed that it was too small and not quite old enough.
  • The discovery of Chicxulub crater in Mexico in 1990 provided strong evidence for a large impact occurring around the same time as the dinosaur extinction.
  • The impacts from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter in 1994 demonstrated the devastating effects of asteroid or comet impacts, and confirmed that such events can cause significant damage to planets.
  • Asteroid or comet impacts are rare but can have catastrophic consequences for life on Earth.
  • The chances of seeing an approaching asteroid or comet with enough warning to take action are slim, as most would not be visible until they were very close to impact.
  • Preventing an asteroid or comet impact is currently impossible, and plans for nuclear warheads to blast the object to pieces have significant limitations.
  • Earth has undergone numerous catastrophic events throughout its history, including volcanic eruptions, ice ages, and meteor impacts, which have shaped the planet's biosphere and led to mass extinctions.


“Geologists are never at a loss for paperweights.”

“An asteroid or comet traveling at cosmic velocities would enter the Earth’s atmosphere at such a speed that the air beneath it couldn’t get out of the way and would be compressed, as in a bicycle pump. As anyone who has used such a pump knows, compressed air grows swiftly hot, and the temperature below it would rise to some 60,000 Kelvin, or ten times the surface temperature of the Sun. In this instant of its arrival in our atmosphere, everything in the meteor’s path—people, houses, factories, cars—would crinkle and vanish like cellophane in a flame. One second after entering the atmosphere, the meteorite would slam into the Earth’s surface, where the people of Manson had a moment before been going about their business. The meteorite itself would vaporize instantly, but the blast would blow out a thousand cubic kilometers of rock, earth, and superheated gases. Every living thing within 150 miles that hadn’t been killed by the heat of entry would now be killed by the blast. Radiating outward at almost the speed of light would be the initial shock wave, sweeping everything before it. For those outside the zone of immediate devastation, the first inkling of catastrophe would be a flash of blinding light—the brightest ever seen by human eyes—followed an instant to a minute or two later by an apocalyptic sight of unimaginable grandeur: a roiling wall of darkness reaching high into the heavens, filling an entire field of view and traveling at thousands of miles an hour. Its approach would be eerily silent since it would be moving far beyond the speed of sound. Anyone in a tall building in Omaha or Des Moines, say, who chanced to look in the right direction would see a bewildering veil of turmoil followed by instantaneous oblivion. Within minutes, over an area stretching from Denver to Detroit and encompassing what had once been Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, the Twin Cities—the whole of the Midwest, in short—nearly every standing thing would be flattened or on fire, and nearly every living thing would be dead. People up to a thousand miles away would be knocked off their feet and sliced or clobbered by a blizzard of flying projectiles. Beyond a thousand miles the devastation from the blast would gradually diminish. But that’s just the initial shockwave. No one can do more than guess what the associated damage would be, other than that it would be brisk and global. The impact would almost certainly set off a chain of devastating earthquakes. Volcanoes across the globe would begin to rumble and spew. Tsunamis would rise up and head devastatingly for distant shores. Within an hour, a cloud of blackness would cover the planet, and burning rock and other debris would be pelting down everywhere, setting much of the planet ablaze. It has been estimated that at least a billion and a half people would be dead by the end of the first day. The massive disturbances to the ionosphere would knock out communications systems everywhere, so survivors would have no idea what was happening elsewhere or where to turn. It would hardly matter. As one commentator has put it, fleeing would mean “selecting a slow death over a quick one. The death toll would be very little affected by any plausible relocation effort, since Earth’s ability to support life would be universally diminished.”



  • The Earth's interior is largely unknown due to a lack of direct observations and the difficulty in gathering data from deep within the planet.
  • The outer core is believed to be liquid and responsible for creating the Earth's magnetic field.
  • The inner core is solid, with a temperature estimated to be between 7,000°F and 13,000°F.
  • Volcanologists have struggled to accurately predict volcanic activity due to a lack of understanding of the differences between various types of volcanoes.
  • The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 caused significant damage and fatalities due to a misunderstanding of the behavior of that specific type of volcano.
  • Volcanologists have been criticized for their lack of preparedness and disregard for important seismic signals.
  • The city of Yakima, Washington, was paralyzed by the effects of ash from Mount St. Helens despite being only eighty miles away and downwind of the volcano.


“Strange as it may seem, wrote Richard Feynman, we understand the distribution of matter in the interior of the Sun far better than we understand the interior of the Earth.”



  • The universe is over 13 billion years old and continues to expand.
  • Matter and energy are interchangeable, as described by Einstein's theory of relativity.
  • The Big Bang Theory explains the origin of the universe and its evolution into galaxies and stars.
  • Stars, including our Sun, undergo nuclear reactions in their cores and have life cycles that include birth, growth, death, and rebirth.
  • Earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old and has experienced significant geological changes over time, including the formation of continents and oceans.
  • The solar system, which includes planets, moons, asteroids, and comets, continues to evolve.
  • Life on Earth began about 3.5 billion years ago as simple organisms that evolved into more complex forms over billions of years.
  • Plate tectonics, the movement of the Earth's crust, has shaped the planet's continents and oceans.
  • The theory of evolution explains how life on Earth has changed over millions of years through natural selection and genetic variation.
  • Human beings evolved from a common ancestor with other primates around 6 million years ago in Africa.
  • Earth is not the only planet in the universe, and scientists believe that there may be conditions suitable for life elsewhere in the universe.
  • The study of extremophiles, organisms that thrive in extreme environments on Earth, has expanded our understanding of the limits of life.
  • Human activities are having a significant impact on the natural world, and it is important to find ways to live sustainably and minimize harm to the environment.



  • The universe is expanding and has been doing so for over 13 billion years.
  • Galaxies, including our own Milky Way, formed about 10-15 billion years ago from a massive explosion called the Big Bang.
  • Stars, including our Sun, form from collapsing clouds of gas and dust. Our solar system has eight planets, with Earth being the third from the Sun.
  • Life on Earth began to emerge around 3.5 billion years ago, likely in the form of simple bacteria or other single-cell organisms.
  • The first complex organisms, called eukaryotes, appeared around 1.8 billion years ago and included a nucleus or other control center for their DNA.
  • Earth's atmosphere was mostly CO2 (carbon dioxide), but early life adapted to using water in forming compounds like proteins and DNA.
  • The first living organisms likely developed in the form of single-cell organisms, possibly around 3.5 billion years ago.
  • Around 1 billion years after that, the first multicellular organisms appeared, with simple plants called algae, followed by early animals like sponges and jellyfish.
  • A few billion years later, complex plants and animals evolved, eventually including humans.
  • The history of the universe, Earth, and life is still being studied and understood in new ways, but what we know so far indicates an extraordinary and awe-inspiring story.


“In terms of adaptability, humans are pretty amazingly useless.”

“What sets the carbon atom apart is that it is shamelessly promiscuous.”



  • The Earth's climate is influenced by various factors such as solar radiation, atmospheric gases, and ocean currents.
  • Thermohaline circulation, driven by differences in temperature and salinity, plays a crucial role in distributing heat around the globe.
  • Oceans absorb and store large amounts of carbon dioxide through biological processes, helping to regulate Earth's climate.
  • Human activities, particularly burning fossil fuels, have significantly increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels since the Industrial Revolution.
  • The long-term carbon cycle involves the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the Earth's biosphere, with foraminiferans and other marine organisms playing a key role in locking away carbon.
  • If carbon emissions continue at their current rate, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could reach critical thresholds, potentially leading to amplified effects on the climate.
  • Natural processes, such as ocean and forest systems, have historically helped mitigate the impacts of increased carbon dioxide levels, but they may eventually reach a tipping point where they can no longer keep up with the rate of emissions.


“You can get some sense of the immaterial quality of clouds by strolling through fog—which is, after all, nothing more than a cloud that lacks the will to fly.”



  • The ocean covers about 71% of the Earth's surface and holds about 97% of the Earth's water.
  • The deep sea is largely unexplored, and we have a poor understanding of the abundance and distribution of marine species.
  • Overfishing has led to the decline or extinction of many fish populations, including cod, halibut, and orange roughy.
  • Bycatch, or unwanted fish and other marine organisms caught in fishing nets, is estimated to be around twenty-two million metric tons per year.
  • Sharks are often finned for their fins, which are used in Asian cuisine, leading to overfishing and endangerment of shark populations.
  • Marine ecosystems are sensitive to disturbance and may take decades or even centuries to recover from overfishing.
  • The North Sea is overfished, with two-thirds of its species being overfished.
  • The cod population in the North Atlantic has declined dramatically due to overfishing.
  • Cod were once abundant but are now largely extinct off the northeastern coast of North America.
  • Other fish and seafoods have replaced cod, such as haddock, redfish, and Pacific pollock.
  • Lobsters used to weigh up to thirty pounds but now rarely weigh more than two pounds on capture due to overfishing.
  • Marine ecosystems are complex and poorly understood, with some naturally impoverished areas supporting more life than expected and others being unable to support the expected amount of life despite seemingly abundant resources.
  • Scientists estimate that there could be as many as thirty million undiscovered marine species.
  • The ocean plays a crucial role in regulating climate and weather patterns, absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, and providing food and other resources for billions of people around the world.
  • Climate change poses significant threats to the health and productivity of the ocean, including sea level rise, ocean acidification, and warming temperatures.
  • Human activities such as overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction threaten the health and diversity of marine ecosystems.
  • To protect the ocean and marine life, it is important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce overfishing, reduce pollution, and protect critical habitats such as coral reefs and wetlands.



  • The universe is around 13.8 billion years old and still expanding.
  • Stars, including our Sun, are formed from collapsing clouds of gas and dust.
  • Earth is about 4.6 billion years old and has undergone significant changes over time.
  • Life on Earth began around 3.5 billion years ago as simple single-celled organisms.
  • Complex multicellular beings, including humans, emerged around 1 billion years ago.
  • The world is dominated by two types of form - those that expel oxygen (like plants) and those that take it in (you and me).
  • Eukaryotes, which have a nucleus and other bodies called organelles, emerged suddenly in the fossil record around 1 billion years ago.
  • Single-celled eukaryotes or protists are much larger and carry as much as a thousand times more DNA than their simpler cousins.
  • Life took around 2 billion years to evolve complex structures like nuclei and organelles, which made multicellular beings possible.
  • Mitochondria, tiny energy-producing organelles that were once bacteria, play a crucial role in every cell's existence.



  • Bacteria and viruses cause many diseases, but our bodies have defense mechanisms to combat them.
  • Some bacteria can disguise themselves or strike quickly and move on, while others may cause devastating disorders by getting into the wrong parts of the body.
  • Antibiotics have been overused, leading to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
  • Viruses are even smaller than bacteria and can only replicate inside living cells. They reproduce rapidly and can cause widespread illness or death.
  • Some viruses can lie dormant for long periods before causing disease.
  • The discovery that many diseases are bacterial in origin has led to new treatments and preventative measures, but the threat of devastating epidemics remains.


“Every human body consists of about 10 quadrillion cells, but about 100 quadrillion bacterial cells. They are, in short, a big part of us. From the bacteria’s point of view, of course, we are a rather small part of them.”

“Because we humans are big and clever enough to produce and utilize antibiotics and disinfectants, it is easy to convince ourselves that we have banished bacteria to the fringes of existence. Don't you believe it. Bacteria may not build cities or have interesting social lives, but they will be here when the Sun explodes. This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be.”



  • The Burgess Shale fossils, discovered in 1909 in Canada, were initially thought to represent a sudden and unexpected explosion of new body types during the Cambrian period.
  • The Burgess Shale fossils included strange and seemingly bizarre creatures such as Hallucigenia, which was later reinterpreted as walking on its legs instead of its back.
  • Simon Conway Morris, one of the experts featured in Stephen Jay Gould's book "Wonderful Life," later criticized Gould's interpretations in his own book "The Crucible of Creation."
  • The Burgess Shale fossils were reevaluated using cladistics analysis and were found to be less strange and varied than initially thought. Many of the species could be classified within existing phyla, and some were even identified as precursors of modern animals.
  • The Cambrian explosion may not have been as explosive as previously thought. It is now believed that many of the seemingly new body types were actually present before the Cambrian period but were too small to be preserved in the fossil record.
  • The Burgess Shale fossils likely represent an increase in size rather than a sudden appearance of new body types during the Cambrian period.
  • Reginald Sprigg, who discovered the first Ediacaran fossils in Australia in 1946, was later recognized for his contributions to paleontology and had several species and genera named in his honor.


“Most of what has lived on Earth has left behind no record at all.”



  • Life has existed on Earth for approximately 3.8 billion years.
  • The earliest life forms were likely simple, single-celled organisms that thrived in ancient oceans.
  • Over billions of years, life became increasingly complex through a process called evolution.
  • Extinction is an inevitable part of the natural world, and many factors can cause it, including environmental changes, competition from other species, and asteroid impacts.
  • Five major extinctions have occurred throughout Earth's history, including the End-Ordovician mass extinction, the End-Permian mass extinction, the End-Triassic mass extinction, the End-Cretaceous mass extinction, and the Quaternary extinction event.
  • The most catastrophic of these events was the End-Cretaceous mass extinction, which occurred around 66 million years ago and wiped out over 75% of all species on Earth.
  • The cause of this extinction is believed to be an asteroid impact that led to widespread environmental devastation, including acid rain, forest fires, and a prolonged winter.
  • However, not all species went extinct during the End-Cretaceous mass extinction. Some species, such as turtles, mammals, birds, and certain types of plankton, survived.
  • The reasons for their survival are still debated, but it is believed that they had characteristics that made them better adapted to survive in the harsh conditions following the asteroid impact.
  • Life has a remarkable ability to adapt and evolve, and new species continue to emerge even after mass extinctions.
  • Human beings are here today because our ancestors managed to survive numerous near-extinction events throughout Earth's history.


“When you consider it from a human perspective, and clearly it would be difficult for us to do otherwise, life is an odd thing. It couldn't wait to get going, but then, having gotten going, it seemed in very little hurry to move on.”

“Consider the Lichen. Lichens are just about the hardiest visible organisms on Earth, but the least ambitious.”

“It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of all the intoxicating existence we've been endowed with. But what's life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours—arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don't. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment's additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be.”

“If you imagine the 4,500-bilion-odd years of Earth's history compressed into a normal earthly day, then life begins very early, about 4 A.M., with the rise of the first simple, single-celled organisms, but then advances no further for the next sixteen hours. Not until almost 8:30 in the evening, with the day five-sixths over, has Earth anything to show the universe but a restless skin of microbes. Then, finally, the first sea plants appear, followed twenty minutes later by the first jellyfish and the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna first seen by Reginald Sprigg in Australia. At 9:04 P.M. trilobites swim onto the scene, followed more or less immediately by the shapely creatures of the Burgess Shale. Just before 10 P.M. plants begin to pop up on the land. Soon after, with less than two hours left in the day, the first land creatures follow.

Thanks to ten minutes or so of balmy weather, by 10:24 the Earth is covered in the great carboniferous forests whose residues give us all our coal, and the first winged insects are evident. Dinosaurs plod onto the scene just before 11 P.M. and hold sway for about three-quarters of an hour. At twenty-one minutes to midnight they vanish and the age of mammals begins. Humans emerge one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight. The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human lifetime barely an instant. Throughout this greatly speeded-up day continents slide about and bang together at a clip that seems positively reckless. Mountains rise and melt away, ocean basins come and go, ice sheets advance and withdraw. And throughout the whole, about three times every minute, somewhere on the planet there is a flash-bulb pop of light marking the impact of a Manson-sized meteor or one even larger. It's a wonder that anything at all can survive in such a pummeled and unsettled environment. In fact, not many things do for long.”

“99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us.”

“We are so used to the notion of our own inevitability as life’s dominant species that it is hard to grasp that we are here only because of timely extraterrestrial bangs and other random flukes. The one thing we have in common with all other living things is that for nearly four billion years our ancestors have managed to slip through a series of closing doors every time we needed them to.”

“Life just wants to be; but it doesn't want to be much.”



  • The number of undiscovered species is estimated to be in the tens or even hundreds of millions.
  • Small, overlooked creatures such as mites and bacteria are plentiful and often unknown to science.
  • Tropical rainforests contain most of Earth's biodiversity but have not been extensively studied.
  • There are not enough specialists to study all the unknown organisms.
  • The world is large and has many remote or inaccessible places where new species may be found.
  • Some scientists have devoted their lives to studying obscure or seemingly insignificant organisms, such as bdelloid rotifers or land snails.


“The dandelion was long popularly known as the 'pissabed' because of its supposed diuretic properties, and other names in everyday use included 'mare's fart', 'naked ladies', 'twitch-ballock', 'hounds-piss', 'open arse', and 'bum-towel'.”

“Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground.”

“Your pillow alone may be home to 40 million bed mites. (To them your head is just one large oily bon-bon). And don't think a clean pillow-case will make a difference... Indeed, if your pillow is six years old--which is apparently about the average age for a pillow--it has been estimated that one-tenth of its weight will be made up of sloughed skin, living mites, dead mites and mite dung.”

“Our instinct may be to see the impossibility of tracking everything down as frustrating, dispiriting, perhaps even appalling, but it can just as well be viewed as almost unbearably exciting. We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise. What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?”

“As we parted at the Natural History Museum in London, I asked Richard Fortey how science ensures that when one person goes there's someone ready to take his place.

He chuckled rather heartily at my naiveté. 'I'm afraid it's not as if we have substitutes sitting on the bench somewhere waiting to be called in to play. When a specialist retires or, even more unfortunately, dies, that can bring a stop to things in that field, sometimes for a very long while.'

And I suppose that's why you value someone who spends forty-two years studying a single species of plant, even if it doesn't produce anything terribly new?'

'Precisely,' he said, 'precisely.' And he really seemed to mean it.”



  • The study of cells began in the late 1600s when a Dutch microscopist, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, observed tiny organisms in water using his homemade microscope.
  • The discovery of cells revolutionized the scientific understanding of living organisms.
  • Cells are the fundamental unit of life and come in different shapes and sizes depending on their function within an organism.
  • All cells share common features, such as a membrane that separates the interior from the exterior, cytoplasm where chemical reactions occur, and a nucleus containing genetic material.
  • The discovery of DNA and its role in carrying genetic information was a major breakthrough in science.
  • DNA is a long molecule made up of two strands twisted together in a double helix structure.
  • The sequence of bases along the DNA molecule determines the genetic instructions for making proteins, which are essential for cellular function.
  • Genetic variations arise from mutations in the DNA sequence, which can lead to differences between individuals and contribute to evolution.
  • The study of cells and genetics continues to advance our understanding of living organisms and their diversity.


“Brain cells last as long as you do. You are issued with a hundred billion or so at birth and that is all you are ever going to get. It has been estimated that you lose five hundred of them an hour, so if you have any serious thinking to do there really isn’t a moment to waste.”

“When cells are no longer needed, they die with what can only be called great dignity. They take down all the struts and buttresses that hold them together and quietly devour their component parts. The process is known as apoptosis or programmed cell death. Every day billions of your cells die for your benefit and billions of others clean up the mess. Cells can also die violently- for instance, when infected- but mostly they die because they are told to. Indeed, if not told to live- if not given some kind of active instruction from another cell- cells automatically kill themselves. Cells need a lot of reassurance.

When, as occasionally happens, a cell fails to expire in the prescribed manner, but rather begins to divide and proliferate wildly, we call the result cancer. Cancer cells are really just confused cells. Cells make this mistake fairly regularly, but the body has elaborate mechanisms for dealing with it. It is only very rarely that the process spirals out of control. On average, humans suffer one fatal malignancy for each 100 million billion cell divisions. Cancer is bad luck in every possible sense of the term.”

“Disassemble the cells of a sponge (by passing them through a sieve, for instance), then dump them into a solution, and they will find their way back together and build themselves into a sponge again. You can do this to them over and over, and they will doggedly reassemble because, like you and me and every other living thing, they have one overwhelming impulse: to continue to be.”



  • Charles Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection was published in 1859 in his book "On the Origin of Species."
  • The theory suggested that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations.
  • Darwin's theory faced criticism from some scientists and religious figures for its implications on the origin of humans and the existence of God.
  • Gregor Mendel's work on genetics provided a mechanism for how new species could arise, though it was not widely recognized at the time.
  • The acceptance of Darwin's theory grew slowly, with many scientists embracing it in the 1930s and 1940s as part of the Modern Synthesis.
  • Mendel's work was rediscovered in 1900, and he is now recognized as a founding figure of modern genetics.
  • The full implications of Darwin's theory for the origin of humans were not widely accepted until much later, with many scientists continuing to believe in creationism or other alternatives into the twentieth century.



  • The universe began approximately 13.8 billion years ago in a massive explosion called the Big Bang.
  • About 9.8 billion years ago, the first stars formed and eventually gave birth to planets, including Earth around 4.6 billion years ago.
  • Life on Earth likely started as simple organic molecules, which over billions of years evolved into more complex organisms through a process called natural selection.
  • All living things share common genetic material, DNA, which is organized into genes and chromosomes. Most of our DNA does not code for proteins, but rather helps in the replication of the DNA itself.
  • Genetic variation arises from errors in DNA replication and mutations, which can lead to new traits and adaptations that help organisms survive and reproduce.
  • All living things are interconnected through a shared evolutionary history and a common set of genetic material.
  • The quest for understanding the human body continues with efforts to map the human proteome, which is more complex than the genome due to protein shape and behavior.
  • The simplicity underlying the complexity of life lies in its fundamental unity, as all living things are based on the same chemical processes and genetic material that evolved from a common origin.


“The number of people on whose cooperative efforts your eventual existence depends has risen to approximately 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, which is several thousand times the total number of people who have ever lived.”

“If you go back sixty-four generations, to the time of the Romans, the number of people on whose cooperative efforts your eventual existence depends has risen to approximately one million trillion, which is several thousand times the total number of people who have ever lived!.”



  • Earth's climate has undergone significant shifts throughout its history, including several ice ages and warm periods.
  • The Milankovitch cycles (precession, axial tilt, and eccentricity) influence Earth's climate by changing the amount of solar radiation received at different latitudes.
  • Ice ages are caused by a combination of factors, including changes in Earth's orbit, solar activity, and greenhouse gas levels.
  • The last ice age ended around 12,000 years ago, giving way to the current interglacial period (Holocene).
  • Warming periods, such as the one we are currently experiencing, can lead to abrupt climate shifts, some of which could be catastrophic for human civilization.
  • The causes and mechanisms behind these climate shifts are not fully understood and continue to be the subject of scientific research.
  • Earth's biosphere has adapted to climate changes throughout its history, with some species going extinct and others thriving in new environments.
  • Understanding Earth's climate history can help us anticipate future changes and prepare for potential challenges.


“There are three stages in scientific discovery. First, people deny that it is true, then they deny that it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.”



  • Humans share 98.4% of their genes with chimpanzees
  • Hominids left Africa around 1.6 million years ago and spread across continents
  • Homo erectus, a species that existed between 1.8 million and 20 thousand years ago, is considered a dividing line between apelike and humanlike beings
  • Homo erectus had modern-looking bodies but brains of infants
  • Homo erectus likely communicated with chimp-level speech abilities
  • Some scientists suggest modern humans could have originated in Asia instead of Africa, a theory without concrete evidence
  • It is uncertain when and where the first modern human appeared.


“Since the dawn of time, several billion human (or humanlike) beings have lived, each contributing a little genetic variability to the total human stock. Out of this vast number, the whole of our understanding of human prehistory is based on the remains, often exceedingly fragmentary, of perhaps five thousand individuals. You could fit it all into the back of a pickup truck if you didn't mind how much you jumbled everything up, Ian Tattersall, the bearded and friendly curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, replied when I asked him the size of the total world archive of hominid and early human bones. The shortage wouldn't be so bad if the bones were distributed evenly through time and space, but of course they are not. They appear randomly, often in the most tantalizing fashion. Homo erectus walked the Earth for well over a million years and inhabited territory from the Atlantic edge of Europe to the Pacific side of China, yet if you brought back to life every Homo erectus individual whose existence we can vouch for, they wouldn't fill a school bus. Homo habilis consists of even less: just two partial skeletons and a number of isolated limb bones. Something as short-lived as our own civilization would almost certainly not be known from the fossil record at all. In Europe, Tattersall offers by way of illustration, you've got hominid skulls in Georgia dated to about 1.7 million years ago, but then you have a gap of almost a million years before the next remains turn up in Spain, right on the other side of the continent, and then you've got another 300,000-year gap before you get a Homo heidelbergensis in Germany and none of them looks terribly much like any of the others. He smiled. It's from these kinds of fragmentary pieces that you're trying to work out the histories of entire species. It's quite a tall order. We really have very little idea of the relationships between many ancient species which led to us and which were evolutionary dead ends. Some probably don't deserve to be regarded as separate species at all.”

“Bipedalism is a demanding and risky strategy. It means refashioning the pelvis into a full load-bearing instrument. To preserve the required strength, the birth canal in the female must be comparatively narrow. This has two very significant immediate consequences and one longer-term one. First, it means a lot of pain for any birthing mother and greatly increased danger of fatality to mother and baby both. Moreover, to get the baby's head through such a tight space it must be born while it's brain is still small - and while the baby, therefore, is still helpless. This means long-term infant care, which in turn implies solid male-female bonding.”

“One of the hardest ideas for humans to accept,’ he says, ‘is that we are not the culmination of anything. There is nothing inevitable about our being here. It is part of our vanity as humans that we tend to think of evolution as a process that, in effect, was programmed to produce us.”



  • The study of human origins is complex and ongoing, with new discoveries continually challenging previous theories.
  • The out-of-Africa hypothesis suggests that modern humans originated in Africa and then spread out to populate the world.
  • Genetic studies support this theory but also suggest that there may have been multiple migrations and dispersals in different parts of the world.
  • The study of ancient DNA is challenging due to contamination risks.
  • Olorgesailie, Kenya, is a significant archaeological site with evidence of tool-making dating back over a million years.
  • The people who made these tools are believed to have been Homo erectus, but no physical evidence has been found to confirm this.
  • Human origins remain a mystery and ongoing research will continue to uncover new information.



  • The universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old and expanding at an accelerating rate.
  • The solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago from a rotating disk of gas and dust.
  • Earth is the third planet from the sun and has a diameter of about 7,920 miles (12,756 kilometers). Its interior consists of a solid iron core surrounded by a liquid outer core, mantle, and crust.
  • The atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen and oxygen gases, with trace amounts of other gases.
  • Water covers about 71% of the Earth's surface and exists in three states: solid (ice), liquid (water), and gas (water vapor).
  • Life on Earth began around 3.5 billion years ago, likely as simple microorganisms that thrived in ocean environments.
  • The first multicellular organisms appeared about a billion years later, with the first vertebrates emerging around 600 million years ago.
  • Humans belong to the domain eukarya, kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Primates, family Hominidae, genus Homo, and species Sapiens.
  • The human body is made up of approximately 75 trillion cells, which are constantly dividing and dying.
  • Microorganisms are responsible for many essential processes on Earth, including the decomposition of organic matter and the production of oxygen through photosynthesis.
  • The discovery of extremophiles has expanded our understanding of where life can exist, potentially opening up the possibility of extraterrestrial life in extreme environments.


“...if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn't choose human beings for the job.

But here's an extrememly salient point: we have been chosen, by fate or Providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It's an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe's supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.”

“If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here-and by 'we' I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.”

“I mention all this to make the point that if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn't choose human beings for the job. But here's an extremely salient point: we have been chosen, by fate or Providence or whatever you wish to call it. It's an unnerving thought that we may be living the universe's supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously. Because we are so remarkably careless about looking after things, both when alive and when not, we have no idea-- really none at all-- about how many things have died off permanently, or may soon, or may never, and what role we have played in any part of the process. In 1979, in the book The Sinking Ark, the author Norman Myers suggested that human activities were causing about two extinctions a week on the planet. By the early 1990s he had raised the figure to about some six hundred per week. (That's extinctions of all types-- plants, insects, and so on as well as animals.) Others have put the figure ever higher-- to well over a thousand a week. A United Nations report of 1995, on the other hand, put the total number of known extinctions in the last four hundred years at slightly under 500 for animals and slightly over 650 for plants-- while allowing that this was "almost certainly an underestimate," particularly with regard to tropical species. A few interpreters think most extinction figures are grossly inflated. The fact is, we don't know. Don't have any idea. We don't know when we started doing many of the things we've done. We don't know what we are doing right now or how our present actions will affect the future. What we do know is that there is only one planet to do it on, and only one species of being capable of making a considered difference. Edward O. Wilson expressed it with unimprovable brevity in The Diversity of Life: "One planet, one experiment." If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here-- and by "we" i mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp. We have arrived at this position of eminence in a stunningly short time. Behaviorally modern human beings-- that is, people who can speak and make art and organize complex activities-- have existed for only about 0.0001 percent of Earth's history. But surviving for even that little while has required a nearly endless string of good fortune. We really are at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a good deal more than lucky breaks.”


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